BYLINE: Yakov M Rabkin
All Jews are Zionists. All Zionists are Jews. All Jews support Israel. These cliches are not only wrong; they are dangerous.
What is Zionism?
Zionism is a product of European history. Among the many tendencies within Zionism, the one that has triumphed formulated four objectives:
l to transform the transnational and extraterritorial Jewish identity centred on the Torah into a national identity, like ones then common in Europe;
l to develop a new national language based on biblical and rabbinical Hebrew;
l to transfer the Jews from their countries of origin to Palestine; and
l to establish political and economic control over the land, if need be by force.
While other European nationalists, such as Poles or Lithuanians, needed only to wrest control of their countries from imperial powers to become "masters in their own houses," Zionists faced a far greater challenge in trying to achieve their objectives.
Both Zionists and their opponents agree that Zionism and the state of Israel constitute a break with Jewish history, a break that began with the emancipation and the secularisation of European Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Secularisation, which affected many Jews in Europe, was not the only factor in the emergence of Zionism. Another was resentment by some conservative circles of the entry of Jews into European society, which coalesced into the secular ideology of racial or scientific antisemitism.
It emerged in Europe alongside racial theories that "proved" the superiority of the white Nordic race. Unlike Christian anti-Judaism, which aims at salvation through conversion, modern antisemitism considers Jews to be a race or a people intrinsically alien to Europe, its population and its civilisation.
Traditionally, Jews are distinguished by their adherence to religious practices and moral values. In contrast, antisemitic ideology attributes to Jews inborn negative characteristics. During World War 2 the Nazis applied this "scientific" approach on a mass scale, murdering several million Jewish civilians from a dozen European countries.
The Zionist ideology also assumes that Jews from different countries belong to the same ethnic group going back to the Biblical Hebrews.
This is the founding myth of the Zionist movement and of the state of Israel, established by Zionists in 1948. However, this founding Zionist myth has come under attack with the recent publication of Professor Shlomo Sand of Tel-Aviv University (The Invention of the Jewish People). He argues that the Jewish people, as an ethnic concept, was simply "invented" for the needs of Zionism in the late 19th century: to form a nationalist movement one needs to have a nation.
While Zionists replicated the antisemites' view of the Jews as a distinct people or race, most Jews rejected Zionism from the very beginning when they saw that Zionists played into the hands of their worst enemies, the antisemites: the latter wanted to be rid of Jews while the former wanted to gather them to Palestine.
The founder of Zionism, Theodore Herzl, considered antisemites "friends and allies" of his movement.
Zionism has been a break with traditional Judaism and its cult of humility and accommodation. It has been an attempt to transform the pious Jew relying on divine providence into a secular Hebrew relying on his own power.
"Our claim to this land could be put in a nutshell: God does not exist, and he gave us this land."
This is how an Israeli colleague wittily summarised the origins of the Zionist movement.
Zionism turned prayers and messianic expectations into calls for political and military action, ignoring the fact that Jewish tradition discourages collective, let alone violent, return to the Promised Land: this return is to be operated as part of the messianic redemption of the entire world.
There is little wonder that the Zionist idea provoked immediate opposition among traditional Jews.
"Zionism is the most terrible enemy that has ever arisen to the Jewish Nation," proclaimed Rabbi Isaac Breuer, a prominent European scholar nearly a century ago. The Israeli historian of Zionism, Yosef Salmon, explains this opposition:
"It was the Zionist threat that offered the gravest danger, for it sought to rob the traditional community of its very birthright, both in the Diaspora and in the Land of Israel, the object of its messianic hopes.
"Zionism challenged all the aspects of traditional Judaism: in its proposal of a modern, national Jewish identity; in the subordination of traditional society to new lifestyles; and in its attitude to the religious concepts of Diaspora and redemption.
"The Zionist threat reached every Jewish community. It was unrelenting and comprehensive, and therefore it met with uncompromising opposition."
Grafting traditional Jewish symbols on essentially secular Zionism, however incongruously, is potent.
Identification with the state of Israel has increased even among many observant Jews, in spite of the principled rejection of Zionism by the rabbis they continue to revere.
More importantly, Zionism has replaced Judaism as a new religion for millions of atheists. They reflexively reject disapproval of Israel and avoid unpleasant facts about it.
At the same time, a broad variety of Jews - from the ultra-orthodox to the left-wing secularists - continue to oppose Zionism, accusing it of destroying Jewish moral values and endangering Jews in Israel and elsewhere.
Diaspora Jews are often accused of complicity with Israel, a country they neither inhabit nor control. Most Jews have never even visited it. There have even been violent acts perpetrated against Jews "in retaliation" for what Israel does to the Palestinians.
What lies behind these accusations is a dangerous conflation between Jews and Israelis, and between Judaism and Zionism.
Sometimes this conflation simply reflects antisemitic, ie racist cliches about "the world Jewish conspiracy". Some people attribute certain political opinions to entire groups believed to hold them because of their inherent characteristics. Citizens of this country know well how unjust such racist generalisations can be, and most have put them aside.
Another source of conflation is the official rhetoric of Israel. However modern and advanced it is in other respects, the state maintains the anachronistic claim that it is "the state of the Jewish people" rather than, like any other, a state of its citizens.
Calling Israel "the Jewish state" predictably foments antisemitism and breeds anti-Jewish sentiment.
In reality, Jews around the word, whatever their feelings may be about Israel, have little to no impact on what that country is and does. They may be unconditional fans or, conversely, uncompromising critics of Israel's political and military actions, but their role is limited to the public gallery.
Since the war on Gaza, an already profound division has sharpened between Zionist advocates of Israel and Jews who question Zionism and deplore actions taken by the state. Public debate about Israel's place in Jewish life has become more open and candid.
At the same time, young Jews seem less committed to Zionism and the state of Israel than their parents. Many rediscover spiritual and religious values of Judaism, and try to come to terms with the contradictions between the Judaism their parents profess to adhere to and the Zionist ideology that has in fact taken hold of them.
In fact, most Jews have shown they prefer to live in pluralist liberal societies rather than in the chronically embattled state in the Middle East that claims their allegiance and desperately tries to attract new immigrants.
When Jews decide to leave their country, be it South Africa, Argentina or Russia, most prefer to settle in North America or Australia, rather than in Israel.
Moreover, Jews are not the most important group in providing support for the state of Israel.
The massive financial and political aid extended by the millions of Christian supporters of Zionism is overtly motivated by a single consideration: that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land will be a prelude to their acceptance of Christ or, for those who fail to do so, to their physical destruction.
For the evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell, the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 has been the most crucial event in history since the ascension of Jesus to heaven, and "proof that the second coming of Jesus Christ is nigh... Without a state of Israel in the Holy Land, there cannot be the second coming of Jesus Christ, nor can there be a Last Judgment, nor the end of the world".
These groups have provided consistent help to the most resolute and intransigent nationalist group in Israeli society - settlers in the territories that came under the control of the Israeli army since 1967.
Christian Zionists claim they number over 50 million in the US alone - over three times more than the entire Jewish population of the world estimated at between 13 and 14 million. The number of Christian Zionists keeps growing around the world, including South Africa.
Israel studiously cultivates relations with the Christian Zionists, who give it an unconditional base of support in many countries.
"As soon as I say the word 'Israel', they start singing 'Hallelujah!' an Israeli diplomat in charge of such contacts assured me. "You cannot imagine an audience better disposed toward us."
One reviewer found in my book a powerful argument why it is "as wrong to consider every Jew a Zionist as to consider every Muslim an Islamist".
While any peaceful political action to help bring peace to the Middle East is legitimate, it is important to avoid antisemitism and islamophobia.
There is no reason to import the conflict in the Holy Land to our shores and fight it vicariously here. This will not help either Israelis or Palestinians.
Rather, we may help them by speaking out against injustice and leading by the example of a pluralist, tolerant and inclusive society.
l Rabkin, author of A Threat From Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism, is professor of history at the University of Montreal. He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Stellenbosch. This article is based on the talk he gave at the University of Cape Town last Thursday as part of the Israel Apartheid Week. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org…